Julia Alvarez

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Julia Alvarez Biography

Julia Alvarez could have died in the Dominican Republic, but her family escaped in time. Though Alvarez was born in New York City, her parents moved back to the Dominican Republic when she was three-months-old. Twice her parents had to flee to the United States to get away from the ruthless dictatorship of Raphael Trujillo. Alvarez’s father, who was involved in an underground movement to rid the Dominican Republic of Trujillo, was a target for assassination.

Although Alvarez has lived most of her life in the States, the novelist dedicates much of her writing to her Dominican roots. She escaped a devastating political regime in her country, learned to deal with prejudice against immigrants in the States, conquered a new language, and found a way to make a living through her favorite thing to do—writing. Not only a great author, Alvarez is a survivor.

Facts and Trivia

  • Alvarez’s first novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, was not published until the author was forty-one. “Be patient,” she tells young writers.
  • Alvarez lives on an organic farm with her husband, Bill Eichner. The couple have developed a sustainable co-operative in the Dominican Republic, where they also run a school to promote literacy.
  • Alvarez claims that having to learn a new language (English) when she was ten years old helped her writing because she had to pay so much attention to words.
  • In 1998, Alvarez published a collection of essays, Something to Declare, covering details about her writing life, which she claims has not changed in the past decade.
  • Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies is based on the lives of Dominican Republic women, founders of the underground group Alvarez’s father belonged to. These women were not as lucky as the Alvarez family. They were brutally murdered.


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Julia Alvarez was born on March 27, 1950, in New York. Her family returned to the Dominican Republic, where Alvarez spent the first ten years of her life in comfort, surrounded by an extended family. Alvarez’s grandfather, a cultural attaché to the United Nations, and her uncles, educated at Ivy League colleges, maintained their ties with the United States. Along with her sisters, Alvarez attended the American schools; in her words, she had an “American childhood” on the island.

From 1930 to 1961, the Dominican Republic was under the ruthless dictatorship of Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina, a tyrant who had maintained his hold on power by unprecedented repression. As Trujillo’s thirst for absolute control bred further corruption, Alvarez’s father became involved in anti-Trujillo activities. Alvarez’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end when a plot to remove the dictator from power was unearthed. With the looming possibility of Dr. Alvarez’s arrest, the family left for the United States.

Life in Queens, New York, offered a stark contrast to the family’s earlier lifestyle. Her “American childhood” had not prepared the ten-year-old Julia for the realities of American life. She missed her friends and cousins and yearned to be accepted in school, but her accented English set her apart from others. In desperation, Alvarez turned to books and eventually writing, which became a substitute for her island home and initiated her future career.

Alvarez and her sisters were educated in Catholic boarding schools. Alvarez attended Connecticut College initially. To keep the girls in touch with their culture, the parents sent them to spend their summers in the Dominican Republic. These stays made Alvarez aware of the double standard applied to the sexes and of the treatment of the poor, uneducated underclass. It was difficult for Alvarez to reconcile her American feminism with Dominican patriarchy, but it reinforced her decision to continue her college education. Winning the Benjamin T. Marshall Poetry Prize in 1968-1969 further encouraged her to pursue a literary career. She transferred to Middlebury College, Vermont, and in 1971 earned her B.A. summa cum laude. She earned her M.F.A. in 1975 from Syracuse University.

After serving as a poet-in-schools, teaching in schools, colleges, and universities, in 1988, Alvarez accepted a position at her alma mater, Middlebury College. Though she had published two collections of poetry in the 1980’s, it was her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), that brought her critical acclaim. The book received the 1991 Josephine Miles Award from PEN Oakland for excellence in multicultural literature and was named a Notable Book by the American Library Association in 1992.

Alvarez had always been fascinated by the courage of the Marabel sisters, who were murdered for opposing the regime in Dominican Republic. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), chronicles the lives of these four sisters. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995. Two more novels, ¡Yo! (1997) and In the Name of Salomé (2000), followed. Three collections of poetry—The Other Side/El otro lado (1995), Seven Trees (1998), and The Woman I Kept to Myself (2004)—and a collection of essays, Something to Declare (1998), also came out during this period. Alvarez has also authored three books for children: The Secret Footprints (2000), How Tía Lola Came to Stay (2001), and Before We Were Free (2002).

To devote more time to her writing and pursuing her other interests, Alvarez gave up her tenured professorship in 1998 but maintains her connection with Middlebury College. She and her husband, Bill Eichner, an eye surgeon, are involved in many humanitarian activities.

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